Among denizens of coral reefs, sea anemones pack a particularly toxic punch. But these days, it's Ohio State University anemone researcher Meg Daly who feels stung. Daly learned on March 1 that the National Science Foundation had awarded her a $450,000 grant to help support a project to genetically analyze and catalog every known sea anemone venom.
Among denizens of coral reefs, sea anemones pack a particularly toxic punch.
But these days, it’s Ohio State University anemone researcher Meg Daly who feels stung.
Daly learned on March 1 that the National Science Foundation had awarded her a $450,000 grant to help support a project to genetically analyze and catalog every known sea anemone venom.
But on March 12, Daly’s Evolution of Venom Proteins in Sea Anemones study and the foundation’s decision to fund it were highlighted as a big waste of taxpayer money.
“This is another example why NSF is so well-known as a government-waste sector,” Larry Clifton, a reporter and columnist for the the Web-based Digital Journal, wrote in an opinion piece. Daly’s response: “One of the really exciting things about basic research is it often has value you just can’t imagine. The world is a complex place, and we understand so little of it.”
The National Science Foundation and grant recipients are no strangers to criticism. When politicians disagree on budget cuts, government-funded basic science programs often are the target.
“What generally happens is they will get (research study) titles and they decide from the titles that this is silly and, therefore, has no use,” said Howard Silver, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium of Social Science Associations.
“There is also a tendency where (critics) set themselves up as deciders of what is good science and what is bad science without having any scientific credentials.”Silver points to Sen. Tom Coburn as an example.
The Oklahoma Republican said in 2011 that the National Science Foundation had mismanaged $3 billion.
Coburn’s report singled out such things as whether online games help adults form friendships and a $325,000 San Diego State University study that looked at whether the tail movements of a robotic squirrel confused rattlesnakes in a report released last year.“In these tight fiscal times it is important to ask why we are spending funds on robotic squirrels,” said John Hart, a Coburn spokesman.
“Should we furlough the squirrel or should we furlough screeners at the TSA lines?”
With a $7 billion annual budget spent largely on grants, the National Science Foundation backs about 20 percent of the basic research at colleges and universities. The agency is the primary source of money for mathematics, computer-science and social-science studies.
Daly said her research is far from frivolous. For example, proteins identified in anemone venom could help produce new anesthetics, heart drugs and even a substitute for Botox injections.
She said it might even spur a paint additive that could keep barnacles from covering the hulls of ocean liners.
Clifton said his opinion piece wasn’t meant to grade the commercial value of Daly’s research. Instead, he says he questions why a federal agency should pay for anemone research at a time when the government can’t agree on budget cuts.
“At some point, the government has to begin to prioritize,” Clifton said. “In my opinion, this is evidence that they have failed to do that.”
Coburn recently sponsored a measure that would prohibit the foundation from funding political science research.
Silver said he finds it interesting that Coburn held political science research up to ridicule.
“The people who criticize these grants on the Hill use social research every day of their lives,”p p p p p p he said. “They run for election and use political consultants who use this research.”But what about the robotic squirrel?
Dana Topousis, a National Science Foundation spokeswoman, said the robot cost less than $1,000 to build. The greater good, she said, was that the funding promotes research in a growing field.
“What’s happening in the robotics field is that more and more of the studies are being done in an affordable way,” she said. “They contribute to a large advancement of technology.”
Topousis said each grant proposal is reviewed by outside scientists. The agency sifts through 50,000 proposals a year, funding about 10,000.Daly said her anemone project will create a first-ever database of different anemones and the unique combination of proteins in their venoms.“ There are 1,200 described species of anemones,” Daly said.
“We’ll be looking at 50 to 100 species chosen to represent geographic and biologic diversity.
“In some cases, we expect to find things that are new — that pharmacologists haven’t isolated.”& amp; amp; amp; lt; /p>
Daly has been awarded nearly $1.5 million in National Science Foundation grants for six research projects dating to 2004, most of which involve anemones and related organisms.
“These organisms have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and they have hit upon strategies of interacting with their prey and environment that are unique,” she said.
“We want to capture it and use it if we can.”